From Boatsheds to Battlesheds 17 Mastering Fear

End of 16th Entry: “Only small stuff biting today – What say, Jack, shall we run out to a Silverfish mark?”

“Dunno if Silverfish bite in the afternoon” answered the bow – I don’t hold with fishing in the afternoon – seems to me fish rests after dinner time, don’t blame ’em I don’t.”

The Skipper laughed “Anyhow there’s a good breeze so we’ll walk down.”

In a few minutes lines were rolled up, oars stowed and at “All hands to the anchor!” the crew hailed onto the heavy rope the boy hauling with heart and soul, feeling that indeed he was a man of the sea and no idler.

The anchor up, came what to the boy was the best of all – the uncasting of sail covers, stepping of the mast and making fast the runners – then, at last, the jib and mainsail unfurled, the jib made fast, the sprit shipped up went the big mainsail, healing over the boat dashed through the water sending the spray flying over the crew – absolutely terrified the lad saw the lee gunwale buried in angry seething water, heard the crash of bow meeting wave, and hanging desperately to the windward gunwale felt the stinging bite of spray and wind – for a few moments he could but cling with wide open eyes feeling death’s icy grip upon his neck.

“Come back aft Mick” he heard the Skipper shout and as one returning from afar and strange land he looked round to see the crew lying comfortably smoking apparently feeling safe as ever.

Instantly the boy’s faculties returned and crawling back from amidships where he had been trying to help make sail, he crouched next to the Skipper. “Cold Youngster? Shove this on.” and the fisherman handed the boy a sea stained jersey.

Proudly Mick donned the garment which, though it would have held a dozen of him, was warm and thick; besides possessing the merit of being a real fisherman’s property.

“I was awfully scared when the boat keeled over so.” He confided rather anxiously, wondering whether confusion would cause the Skipper to think him a coward.

“Well you didn’t look scared which is all that matters, son.” answered the other, “everybody gets scared at times but the man that’s a real man doesn’t show it. Take sailing in a hard gale, the Skipper sees a heavy squall coming – there’s a toss-up whether the boat can stand it, carrying the sail she is, he’s scared white and his heart’s feeling like jelly, but he’s got to light his pipe and look as though its fine fun, if he lets fear get him beat his crew see he is afraid. Everybody would lose his self-confidence and when the squall struck, ten to one the Skipper would do the wrong thing, or a frightened man might grab hold of the tiller or sheet – and over would go the boat.”

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“It’s the same with everything in life – we’ve all got the same weaknesses but the man that can master them can master men. Take old Jack there – you’ve seen him drunk – well that’s because he’s like a boat with a skipper, a squall strikes him, that’s a bit o’ money in his pocket and an open bar door, Jack gets frightened so instead of holding on he casts off his mainsheet loses his way – and Jack swings broadside and over.”

“Avast there” shouted the old fisherman “Taint decent to be making fun of a grown man afore a kid.”

Meanwhile, the boat flew like a bird across the wind, white-crested wavelets rose and fell crashing and hissing around, a few penguins swam easily behind hoping for scraps of fish and offal, now and again a magnificent Malgas, the lesser Albatros, swooped low; rose, high towards the heavens, poised an instant. Then sweeping through the air like a bullet, dived deeply into the sea, clamoured and shrieked, now and again the snakey head and long neck of a cormorant rose like a periscope above the waves.

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Landwards lay ranges of grey haze shrouded mountains, white beached bays and broken cliffs – houses to cling to hill slope or rested amongst the pine woods between sea and hill, along the shore a mass of white surf and distant thunder told of the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and African Continent.

“Now Mick” called the Skipper to the boy who had clamoured back into the bows, his fears vanished and his whole being thrilled with the joy of life, “Come aft and tell me how I must steer to get on the bank.”

Quickly working his way back the eager youngster looked shorewards.

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 16 Learning to Fish

End of 15th Entry: A cry of “Hold Water” from the Skipper broke the thread of the boy’s musings as to how Old Jack would look as the central figure in a scene entitled “Walking the Plank“.

At the order, the oarsmen leaning their bodies against the oars dropped the blades into the water and stopped the way of the boat.

“Pull her round a bit Jack! Steady! Together! Steady – give her a good stroke Koos – Come aft Younker, you’re like a bachelor at a Baptism. All in the way – Pull her up a bit Martin.”

As the Skipper issued his orders the youngster eagerly trying to grasp the meaning of the manoeuvering climbed over the thwarts back into the stern to the Skipper who was dropping a thin line overboard.

“Wondering what we’re doing Mick? Now you have seen pictures of the Sahara Desert haven’t you – rolls and rolls of sea, hereabouts anyway, is like that; and we’re just over a little oasis now. Here’s where those fish who like a quiet settled life live and I’m just trying to find out if they’re hungry – yes they are my boy!” as the line tightened a quick jerk of the line against the gunwale hooked the fish and as he hauled in, the Skipper continued.

“Want to know how we find underwater oasis? Well, the first time it is after trying to find one and if successful taking to bearing, look ashore Mick at the Round Church spire and then at that lone clump of pine trees on the hill, you see a line, well. now look at the Barker – that great mass of rock sticking out of the sea about two miles offshore – you see it’s almost in a line with Little Lion’s Head.”

“Pull her up a bit Koos and Martin” called the skipper unhooking the round dark brown fish he had hauled over the side – “Standby to anchor Jack!” then to the boy “Now see the Barker and the Little Lion’s Head are coming into a line but the trees and Church are getting out of their’s. “Hold Water Martin! Pull Koos! Steady!”

“Both are in their lines Skipper!” shouted the boy – “That’s fine” answered the other – that means if straight lines were drawn through both bearings we would be just where they cut each other. You can see that a few yards, either way, would put us off the joining point of the lines – now we will pull a little way up against the wind and current, drop anchor and the boat will drift right onto the cross bearings.”

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A few strokes in obedience to the Skipper’s orders and then came his shout “Let go Jack!” and the heavy stone which served anchor splashed over the side.

Drawing the oars across the beam of the boat until the blades touched the rowlocks the crew began to open line boxes, bait hooks and drop leaded lines overboard. Selecting a thin line the Skipper showed Mick how to bait his hooks with the pounded flesh of crawfish and giving him another short line with no lead and a rather large hook told him to cast it out. “See if you can raise a mackerel or Maascanker,” he said.

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The Hottentot fish were biting freely and with great pride, the boy hooked and hauled in three or four.

“Only small stuff biting today – What say, Jack, shall we run out to a Silverfish mark?”

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 15 The Boer War

End of 14th Entry: …the Boer War which was still raging and all the world appeared to be flocking into “The Old Tavern of the Seas.”

Glancing at the crew the boy felt a thrill as he sensed how close reality was to fiction. The skipper had a brother who was a rebel – he himself had uncles and cousins fighting on both sides. His father was in the Town Guard, his father’s brother in an irregular mounted regiment of wild young bloods from the four corners of Africa, refugees from the mining fields most of them – his father’s house was an open home for soldiers of England, lavishly entertained though his family was a large one and his people had to battle desperately to keep their heads up on a Civil Servant’s salary and war prices.

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Cape Rebels 

It was jolly exciting he thought, “wonder what Mother thinks with Uncle Will a prisoner-of-war – darn thrilling having had two Uncles with Cronje, and Uncle Toby and those big Australian cousins of his with Roberts, all in the same battle. What would happen if Uncle Toby charged in and met Uncle Will or Uncle Jack? Of course, Uncle Toby would use the bayonet and of course he would win because he was “fighting for England”.

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British Infantry

Those were the days when England’s Might stood like the Rock of Gibraltar and a man spoke not of Britain or the British Empire but of England and England’s Colonies – as the dwellers in the wild far North trembled and feared the King of Beasts so the Nations of the world hated and feared the Island race, Britannia the Pride of the Ocean: Rule Britannia, The Soldiers of the Queen and “they may build their ships my lads” were the songs of the day and the Union Jack waved proudly Mistress of the Seven Seas.

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Rule Britannia

Looking at the skipper Mick wondered if it was really true that he and the stroke oar were the men, who climbing the buttressed tower of Lion’s Head, had hauled down the Union Jack and hoisted the flag of the South African Republic.


The Red Duster

They had an armed guard on the mountain now and perhaps the skipper would be shot trying to repeat the daring deed. His eye fell on the two young Malay half-breeds who pulled between bow and stroke instantly his mind swung to a tale of Gomes filled with thrills of Rajah Brooke, Sea Dyaks, Land Dyaks and those champion men of the seas the Malay pirates “The Orchid Hunters” darn fine yarn that.

Sir James Brooke Rajah of Sarawak by Sir Francis Grant

Sir James Brooke

Out to sea, a great sailing ship was coming down the wind like some monstrous white bird. “She’ll be English won’t she Jack? Full rigged ship by the look of her – coming from Australia”. The bow oar cast a glance over his shoulder and sent a long yellow stream from his mouth to meet a curling wave.

“You blooming youngsters think you know a mighty lot when you doesn’t know nothing!” he answered. “She’s Yank – and a four-masted baroque – running afore the wind makes her look like a ship – bringing wheat.” “How do you know she’s Yank?” asked the boy crestfallen.

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“She’s carrying skysails ain’t she? British ships don’t carry ’em any longer, not to my knowledge they don’t and I left the sea afore you was having napkins changed I did.”

A cry of “Hold Water” from the skipper broke the thread of the boy’s musings as to how Old Jack would look as the central figure in a scene entitled “walking the plank“.


From Boatsheds to Battlefields 14 The Wanderlust

End of 13th Entry: Together with mountaineering, I took up cycling and on foot of bike searched the long wonderful coastline of the Cape Peninsula. The fairyland of Constantia…..

Mickey Osmond the son of a well known South African family had ample excuse for living in a world of dreams – in his veins ran some of the oldest blood of Ireland mixed with a strain of Holland and a dash of that of Sweden. Of his mixed ancestry, all seemed to have contributed something of the wanderlust and the love of strange company to him.

From earliest childhood, the boy had been reared on stories and in an atmosphere of sailing ships and wars. Africa was still in the making – Britain and Boer were at one another’s throats in the North – The Union of South Africa existed only in a few dreamers minds of Natal and Cape Colony were self-governing Colonies of Britain. The Transvaal and the Orange Free State Independent Republics at war with England.

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Table Bay lay crowded with shipping – a day before the youngster had counted a hundred and sixty vessels, steam and sail lying in the roadstead and out beyond the breakwater. Cape Town was filled with troops from all dependencies of the English Crown. It was indeed a goodly time for a boy to be born and bred – the closing scenes of the Old World.

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Away in the North lay a vast unexplored world where a few pioneers were hacking out the road for civilization – marvelous stories of the findings of ancient cities of a vanished race – gold discoveries which made the recent Klondyke strikes fade into insignificance – of innumerable herds of elephant and great races of savage warriors.

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Only three years before the youngster had witnessed a parade of troops returned from the smashing of the Matabele armies – it was the Queen of England’s birthday and on the square, regiments of soldiers in their red tunics and dark trousers, their white helmets spiked with brass, marched past that great man the Queen’s Governor of the Cape Colony. Squadrons of mounted troops in blue tunics and slouch felt hats wheeled and trotted into their places.

The Battle of Majuba hill - Anglo Boer War in South Africa

The Battle of Majuba Hill
Anglo Boer War in South Africa

Field Artillery rumbled past and as the “Feu de Joie” was fired great masses of smoke split by red flame rolled from the martinis and cannon. Since had been another native rebellion and gruesome stories of officers boiling the head of an executed chief to keep the skull as a regimental trophy – then had come the Boer War which was still raging and all the world appeared to be flocking into “The Old Tavern of the Seas.”


And tomorrow the story continues:

“Glancing at the crew the boy felt a thrill as he sensed how close reality was to fiction…”


From Boatsheds to Battlefields 13 To the Crags

End of 12th Entry: So passed four happy years of life spent in continual struggle with wind and wave and though always the mountain loomed in the background and often thought lingered on her cliffs and hovered over her hidden joys of heights ascended, glens explored no opportunity came to wrest them from the unknown, until I reached nearly sixteen.

At fourteen I began to be entrusted with the loan of goels (The Yiddish word for redemption) and to be sought after to take the tiller when surf broke heavily in our tiny cove. Also, I knew just where the fish were and what varieties to go after so more and more I left the canoes and went out from other bays with older fellows or gathered crews for boats I borrowed in the home-place. I found myself always sure of a place in any canoe which put out at times when I was short of hands or anxious for a spin. Gradually some of us began to get in with yachting men and to devote much of our time to sailing in racing craft in Table Bay.

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Then when near sixteen I made a chum of a boy of my own age whose people had come from suburbs lying inland against the mountain. What the sea was to me the mountain was to him and we began to compare the two. I took him out, taught him sea and fish love but always his heart clung to the Crags.

We began walks on the hillside, made a few ascents on Lion’s Head and did one or two cliffs and soon the glamour of the lonely places and the grandeur of the hills caught me so for a while the sea was left in the background and my eyes turned to and were held by the mountain.

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Together we climbed and explored, rent the treasure of flower and heath, faced wet and cold, sun and heat, mist and wind, cliff and crag and ever the fascination grew. Many an evening, many a night and many a day the two of us tramped the hillside, clamoured amongst the peaks and corries, drank at the crawling mountain burns. Often early hours found us perched on the roof of the world watching tiny white-winged craft skimming over the blue main where my old-time chums followed the old ways.

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But I was content. I loved the harsh naked rock walls, the deep gloomy wooded chasms, the wild crags of my new world. Crawling along the narrow ridges, an immensity of space below, a sheer unclimbable wall above; worming through natures chimneys carefully, painfully climbing rock corners, zigzagging a perilous way up some louring buttress I was ever filled with joy o’ life in feeling the thrill of adventure, of surmounting Death’s traps of playing with the grim enemy.

Together with mountaineering I took up cycling and on foot of bike searched the long wonderful coastline of the Cape Peninsula. The fairyland of Constantia – old world farmhouses, set in vineyards and orchards and woodland, clinging to hill and mountainside, backed by frowning cliff and wooded cleft, overhung by gigantic dark ramparts, broken with glen of silvery poplar, intersected with grove and thicket of fir and oak, looking down on blue lagoon and snow white strand with the deep azure of waters of the mountain-locked False Bay fringed with crested wave.

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 12 Four Happy Years

End of 11th Entry: Our light canvas canoes, speedy easily handled and seaworthy dodged in and out of the channel when a heavy boat risked swamping ere she got full way on her and though often our canoes were capsized, now and again broken we all swum like fish and a most merciful providence invariably landed us no further hurt than bruises.

In the beginning, we were content with double-bladed paddles and fishing close inshore or paddling out into the midst of a fishing fleet on in-lying banks. Then one youth fitted his canoe with a pair of skulls and a rudder.

This enterprising individual now made his chum row whilst he steered and when need arose assisted his crew’s efforts with the original paddle. Other owners enthusiastically followed suit and as we were all keen on canoe building the new models were enlarged and widened more well given and space made for two oarsmen.

At this time the majority of us were in receipt of very tiny allowances seldom exceeding a shilling a week. The cost of material needed for a canoe was an obstacle requiring some ingenuity to surmount. We made however quite good money at fishing and material I blush to say came in ways which would have caused our relatives many a thrill of horror.

We required canvas – tarpaulin did splendidly – paint, ceiling boards for ribs, flooring boards for strips, good solid deal (pinewood) for keel shapes and bow and stern posts and in many a mysterious way they arrived. We never manifested any curiosity as to where our friends procured their necessities and most certainly we evaded all reference if any was made as to how we got ours.

But now we longed for swifter flight over the bosom of the Atlantic and sailing experiments came to the fore whereby our people were left puzzling over lost bedsheets and tablecloths though soon the money made fishing enabled us to have real sails, masts, booms and sprits made by sailmakers in town and we took our places as equals nay superiors in sea craft amongst fisherfolk.

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So passed four happy years of life spent in continual struggle with wind and wave and though always the mountain loomed in the background and often thought lingered on her cliffs and hovered over her hidden joys of heights ascended, glens explored no opportunity came to wrest them from the unknown until I reached nearly sixteen.

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 11 A Beautiful Present

From 10th Entry: For long I had been a pet amongst them and often I had begged to put to sea and at last as they ran the boat into the water Jack, the skipper, shouted “Jump in Youngster!” and in a second I had tumbled into the stern sheets and was embarked on a great adventure.

Often I had ridden the rollers in imagination and pictured and felt in my mind the sensations of climbing the mighty rollers and rushing into their trough but now I found the reality far more wonderful and glorious than the wildest flights of dreamland had given me. Clambering into the bow I faced the breaking white horses, reveled in the salty twang and bite of the wind, caught my breath as a wanton wave smashed against the boat and buried me in foaming water and spray.

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A couple of miles out we threw anchor and soon the crew were busy with fishlines and great was my delight at hooking and hauling in a few mackerel. But soon the smell of old half rotten bait, the violent pitching, and rolling of the boat brought on violent seasickness. However, the bout did not last long and when eventually we hoisted anchor and set sail for shore I had given myself altogether to the sea. A year or two went by and I went out more and more often. Barely a Saturday, or holiday but I managed to evade authority and get out to sea or wandered along the coast.

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At twelve I entered the cadet corps and for a while took soldiering seriously for the Boer War was just ending. During the three previous years, I had seen and heard much of the rear lines of the fighting army. We were armed with old Martini-Henry carbines and often I smuggled mine out to sea with looted cartridges and practiced at seabirds, or hunted the mountainside for rare and strictly protected game.

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Then came the present of a beautiful decked canoe, a craft seaworthy, unsinkable and able to stand fairly heavy sea. Every moment I could now steal was devoted to fishing and most of the catches I found little difficulty in disposing of to buyers on the beach. Other youngsters now took up the life and in a year there were a dozen boys rivaling the fishermen at their own game and with the daring of boyhood faring forth in weather the men feared facing.

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Our light canvas canoes, speedy easily handled and seaworthy dodged in and out of the channel when a heavy boat risked swamping ere she got full way on her and though often our canoes were capsized, now and again broken we all swum like fish and a most merciful providence invariably landed us no further hurt than bruises.